Sabrina

This book by Nick Drnaso made history this year by being the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker prize. I’m not going to get into whether it deserves the nod or whether graphic novels ought to be considered for the Booker. I do think they are just as much an art as traditional prose novels, but there’s room to debate whether the forms are similar enough to be part of the same competition. However, it’s not a debate I’m all that interested in. What I care about is whether Sabrina is any good. It turns out that it is very good.

The book opens with two sisters talking together in their parents’ house, where one of them is house sitting. They talk about a boyfriend and a job interview, work a crossword, and consider going camping together. One of them leaves for a party. The next day, the house-sitting sister, feeds the cat, puts on her backpack, leaves a note, and walks out the door. All ordinary enough.

On the next page, we’re at an airport. A man named Calvin is picking up his friend Teddy. Teddy is quiet and seems to have no opinion about anything. He has come to stay with Calvin for a while, and so Calvin, after bringing him home, gets dressed in his military fatigues and heads to his night-shift job in online security.

Eventually, we come to understand that Teddy is grieving the disappearance of his girlfriend, Sabrina, the sister who went for a walk at the beginning of the book. That was the last time anyone saw her. The rest of the book explores people’s reactions to her story. As details emerge, everyone seems to have an opinion. Conspiracy theories abound. Teddy, who rarely leaves his room, listens to a talk radio rumor monger. Calvin surreptitiously searches online news stories and comment sections. At the same time, Calvin is trying to cope with the end of his marriage and make plans for his future.

Although the book has hints of mystery and of media criticism, specifically social media, at its heart, it’s about grief and how different people manage loss. I found Teddy’s paralysis and immersion in the worst versions of the story frustrating to watch, but I could also understood. Calvin, too, wants to make sense of things, both to help his friend and, I think, to find sense in his own life. People want to make sense of things. I’ve come across several articles and podcasts lately about that being the reason for conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory attempts to make sense of lots of disparate facts. The problem is that conspiracy theories generally involve telling lies about people, often real people who are already in pain, and we see that play out in Sabrina. 

Ultimately, though, what is compelling about the book is seeing that the way to get through grief is just to get through it. Maybe, for some, that involves some unhealthy behaviors for a time. But, eventually, it is possible to open your eyes and see a way out.

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Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics | 2 Comments

Transcription

Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite living writers. I’ve read all her books, so any new book from her is a cause to celebrate. Especially exciting is the fact that Atkinson doesn’t just stick to one thing in her books. She writes a lot of historical fiction, but she’ll also play around with speculative fiction, and she’s written a fantastic crime series. In Transcription, she stays with the World War II setting of her two previous books, but this is a different kind of story altogether. Instead of being an introspective (sometimes speculative) novel about the nature of life and death, Atkinson’s newest book is spy thriller.

Of course, Atkinson being Atkinson, she plays around a bit with form. There are three timelines, the framing timeline is set in the 1980s, with Juliet Armstrong looking back on her life. Then there’s the 1950 timeline, with Juliet working at the BBC after the war and uncovering new mysteries related to her war work. And then there’s the 1940 storyline, in which Juliet works for MI5.

Juliet’s main job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between a government agent and a group of Nazi sympathizers. Most of these sympathizers are women looking to help their cause but not able to do a whole lot. By reporting their activities to a government agent posing as a Nazi, they not only provide possible intelligence to the British government but are prevented from making contact with actual Nazis.

Her other task is to pose as a possible recruit for Nazi sympathizers. For this work, she takes on a false identity and wins her way into a fascist social circle and seeks out incriminating information on their activities. On top of that, a high-level supervisor at MI5 has asked her to keep an eye on a colleague.

One of the fun things about this book, about almost any spy story, is seeing Juliet juggle her multiple identities. Atkinson cleverly shows Juliet’s gift for concealment early on, when we see her bluffing her way through an interview for M15. Yet I ended up questioning Juliet’s observational abilities at times. She doesn’t appear to be a perfect spy, but it occurred to me that in wartime, when everyone has to contribute, perfection may be less important than basic competence and a willingness to take a risk. At any rate, I liked seeing her wrangle her way out of tricky situations, even if I got frustrated at what looked to me like a tendency to miss what was right in front of her. (I read this while also being immersed in The Americans, so spy stories are very much my thing right now.)

By the end of the book, some secrets have been revealed that cast previous events in a new light. One revelation felt a bit like a cheat to me, creating tension in a dishonest way. But the groundwork for the rest was well laid early on, if you know what you’re seeing. As it turns out, we readers need some of the skills of a spy to see what’s in front of us.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 12 Comments

The Last Cruise

Christine Thorne is taking a rare vacation from her Maine farm to take a cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii with her best friend, a journalist who’s using the trip to do research for a book about service workers. The ship is the Queen Isabella, an old-school ocean liner on its last voyage. In honor of the ship’s history, the dining and entertainment will have a retro feel. The food will be provided in part by Mick Szabo, newly promoted to sous-chef and hoping to prove himself. And the some of the entertainment will be provided by the Sabra Quartet, whose second violinist, Miriam Koslow, is not exactly looking forward to the trip, especially since they’ll be performing a tricky piece by the ship’s owner and she’s been assigned a room with her ex-husband.

A cruise ship can be a useful vehicle for fiction, given that it puts a variety of characters together in a closed space for a definite length of time. In Kate Christensen’s novel, the trip starts out with ordinary human dramas of people trying to get along in this closed space. And then the disasters start.

Every now and then, I think it might be fun to go on a cruise. With the right cruise, I’d get to see lots of different places while sleeping in the same bed each night. Pretty great! But then I remember this bit from folk singer Cheryl Wheeler:

In this novel, having to eat Pop Tarts and Spam was a minor hardship. It seems like all the things happen. Worker strike, fire, engine failure, storms, norovirus, etc., etc. I don’t think anyone falls overboard … at least none of the major characters and their associates do.

Over the course of the journey, all of the characters have to face up to their true selves and what they really want in life. At first, it’s the sort of musing that comes with being in a new environment. How do I like this? Is this working? But then, as disaster strikes, they each learn about themselves through their responses to the disaster. Or at least that’s the idea.

Although I enjoyed watching the events unfold, I wished some of the characterizations had been more robust. For instance, Christine’s realization at the end didn’t seem sufficiently grounded in what we’ve learned about her so far. And Mick and Miriam are mostly the same as they were before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that sometimes the book seemed to be pointing to big revelations that seemed minor next to everything else that was going on. I just never could bring myself to care about the characters as much as I cared about the situation. But I cared enough about the situation that I was happy to read this.

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Strange Weather

This is the fourth book that I’ve read by Joe Hill, and with this NOS4A2 and The Fireman, I feel comfortable saying that he is well on his way to becoming a favorite author. (The Heart-Shaped Box was also excellent but a little too scary until it fizzled out.) However, unlike, NOS4A2 and The Fireman, which were doorstoppers of more than 600 pages, this book is a collection of four novellas. All of them are pretty good, definitely hard to put down.

Jenny reviewed this collection a few months ago, so you can read her review to get a sense of what they’re like. I’d rank the four novellas pretty much the same way she did: Loaded, about the horror of U.S. gun culture; Snapshot, about a memory-wiping camera;  Rain, about a literal rainstorm of skin-piercing crystal needles; and Aloft, about a boy’s adventure on a cloud. Snapshot and Rain are about equal in my mind, partly because I read Rain during an actual rainstorm — so lots of ambiance!

The thing that all four novellas have in common is that it is very hard to predict what’s going to happen next, even as the characters generally behave in ways that are utterly predictable, or that at least make sense in context. They are generous, cruel, brave, and violent in just the ways real people are. But, with the exception of Loaded, they are put in unimaginable situations. What would you do if the sky rained needles, if you were stuck on a solid cloud, if you found a camera that erased people?

In contrast, Loaded, while depicting a realistic situation, incorporates just enough chance in its storyline to keep the outcome from being obvious. However, it also walks a fine line on whether its characters are types or full-on caricatures. I think it mostly stays on the right side of the line, but it’s close at times.

Overall, though, what these novellas have going for them is their sheer creativity at putting characters in situations they couldn’t possibly have planned for and then seeing what happens. Even the weakest story, Aloft, which feels weird for the sake of weird, is impossible to turn away from. It’s toward the end that it gets silly, whereas the other stories finish strong.

Anyway, if you haven’t read any Joe Hill, and you like good horror thrillers, you should give him a try. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next and hoping he keeps up the great story-telling.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 3 Comments

More Than Love Letters

I do love an epistolary novel, and this one by Rosy Thornton is a lot of fun. The letters that open the novel are written by Margaret Hayton to her MP about such matters as taxes on feminine sanitary products, the British government’s sluggishness on greenhouse gas regulations, and the disrepair of the zip line on the local playground. Her MP, Richard Slater, writes her off as an old-lady crank and sends back form letters. But, eventually, he realizes he needs to be more visible to his constituents to restore his reputation with the government after voting against the war in Iraq. So, in response to a letter from Margaret about a refugee woman the WITCH group (for Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness) is helping, he invites Margaret to come meet with him. He is surprised to see that she’s young and attractive, and he’s impressed with her passion and ends up trying to help.

The relationship between Margaret and Richard is chronicled in their letters and e-mails to each other, to friends and family, from Margaret’s landlady to her husband, a handful of newspaper articles, and minutes of weekly WITCH meetings. As Margaret and Richard attempt to help Nasreen, the Albanian refugee, they get closer to each other. Miscommunications and misunderstandings occur, each of them grows up a little, and so on.

It’s a typical romcom plot, with two charming, good-hearted people falling in love while surrounded by quirky friends and personal dramas, some of which are quite serious, involving sexual abuse and suicide. Along the way, Richard learns to put people before politics, and Margaret learns not to let her initial assumptions get the better of her. (Margaret doesn’t have as far to go as Richard, but she does make some serious errors in the heat of the moment.)

And that’s about all there is to say about this book. It was fun to read. I had heard that it was a modernization of North and South, but, if so, it’s a loose one. Margaret is named after the heroine of Gaskell’s novel, and she shares the same passion for doing good, I think it’s more that is provided some general inspiration, rather than a framework on which to build. And that’s fine. It’s an enjoyable story on its own.

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The Murderess

As Hadoula, the 60-year-old protagonist of this 1903 novel by Alexandros Papdiamantis (and translated from Greek by Peter Levi) takes care of her infant granddaughter, she considers her life as a woman and the lives of her daughters. How much pain there is, how much their futures are prescribed by dowry customs and whims of men. And she wondered, “O God, why should another one come into the world?”

Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected. Not much makes them ill and they seldom die. Should we as good Christians not help in the work of the angels? Oh how many boys, and how many little princes are snatched away untimely! And even little princesses die more easily, rare in their sex as they are, more easily than the infinite multitude of the children of the poor. The only ones with seven lives are the girl children of the lowest class! They seem to have been multiplied on purpose, to punish their parents with a foretaste of hell in this world. Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up in smoke.

On the very next page, Papadiamantos observes that the old woman’s brain has indeed gone up in smoke, as her musings turned into a deadly impulse, and the baby in her care is now dead. And it’s not the last.

Hadoula sees herself as doing good, preventing years of suffering for young daughters and their families. For her, pain is inevitable for girls and their families, and Papadiamantos offers sufficient reason in the history of Hadoula and others in the village for us to believe it. Hadoula is a healer who uses herbs and plants to ease her neighbors’ pains. These deaths are a extension of that work. Yet the families in Hadoula’s village don’t see it that way, and so she ends up on the run, crawling up the mountains of Skiathos, evading capture as long as she can.

I can’t say that I loved this book, partly because stories of women’s suffering are so ubiquitous as to require something really original to stand out. The premise is original, but the story felt thin once I got past the premise. However, the ending of the book raises some interesting questions about how Papadiamantos wants readers to understand Hadoula’s actions, and her feelings about those actions. I’m not suggesting that the book’s argument is that the murders are righteous, but the final image, evoking baptism, makes me wonder if we’re supposed to read something righteous in her intentions. Papadiamantos says she’s caught “midway between divine and human justice.” So what, exactly, is the justice she’s receiving?

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The Tragedy of Brady Sims

This novella by Ernest Gaines begins with a verdict, followed by a crime. A young man is convicted of robbery and murder, and, just as he’s being escorted out of the courtroom, his father, Brady Sims, shoots and kills him. Brady pleads for two hours on his own before he turns himself in, and the sheriff, Mapes, allows it. In the meantime, a young reported named Louis is told to get started on a human interest story about Brady.

To do his research, Louis heads to the town barbershop, where the black men of the community, like so many black men, spend their time, chatting about local happenings, past and present. And their meandering narration forms the core of the book.

The men are ostensibly telling Brady’s story, but their storytelling goes all over the place, including into a running joke about whether it was War or Tractors that sent so many of their young people away. And so, through their stories, we get a sense not just of Brady’s life, but of the sensibilities of the town’s black community.

These are men who know each other well, and they’ve known each other for years. They’re just letting Louis, and us, listen in. Sometimes that makes for frustrating reading, when characters are referred to as “that boy” or some shared history is referred to that an outsider wouldn’t understand. And so the reader doesn’t understand either. Gaines makes clear that this is a deliberate choice because there’s an out of towner hanging out in the barbershop, and he complains about how the story is never getting anywhere.

I think this technique does well at pointing out how outsiders really can’t understand the full story of a community and its particular suffering. Those who aren’t from Bayonne, Louisiana, who won’t understand the community’s history. White people will miss the nuances. The storytelling is not for us. It’s a way that these storytellers maintain their bonds to each other. Others can listen in, but the speakers aren’t going to stop to explain all the details. It makes the storytelling feel more natural, even if, like the out of town listener, I sometimes wanted the rambling to get to where it was going. (If the book had been longer, it might, alas, have been too frustrating for me, so I’m glad it was so short.)

So what do we learn about Brady? We learn that he spent his whole life making sure that his children, and other children in the community, do not end up in the Angola prison. If that means giving them a beating, then so be it. Is he right? Is he wrong? The book doesn’t say. Some of the beatings are severe. But, then again, so is Angola. Mapes speaks at the end about the burden society placed on Brady and how everyone, including him, could have done more. And so the book asks us to take on some of the burden, to try to understand without hand holding, to seek ways to lighten the load.

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Beast in View

This old-school 1955 suspense novel by Margaret Millar features a fractured family whose secrets are being pulled out of the darkness by a resentful woman whose feelings have bred a sort of madness that makes her a danger to everyone that gets on her wrong side.

The story begins when Miss Helen Clarvoe receives a phone call from an old school friend named Evelyn Merrick. Helen, a cold and solitary woman, doesn’t remember Evelyn, although she pretends to, but she’s unsettled by the phone call, which includes a reference to the money she inherited when her father died. So she calls Mr. Blackshear, the family financial adviser for help. Blackshear, recently semi-retired, takes up the case and begins looking into Evelyn Merrick.

It turns out that Evelyn is more closely tied to the Clarvoe family than Helen recalled, but once the nature of the relationship is revealed, the situation begins to look even more sinister. Before long, people are dying. Yet, Evelyn herself remains a mystery, with people presenting altogether different versions of her. And the sinister phone calls and revelations go on.

The plot in this book winds around quite a lot as new characters are introduced and new shocking twists revealed. It takes a while for the main thread to be revealed, but once it is, the book becomes pretty gripping. There’s some dark comedy, especially in a scene involving a doting mother. And the book’s climax is patently obvious once you look back but still something of a surprise (to me, anyway). The groundwork is well laid.

This book was written in 1955, and it’s a book of its time, with some dodgy ideas about mental illness and homosexuality that may bother some readers more than they bothered me. For the most part, I think Millar was attempting to treat her outcast and troubled characters with sympathy without letting them off the hook in areas where they go wrong. (This is very much Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith territory. In fact, this novel won the Edgar award over The Talented Mr Ripley.) I’ve hadn’t read any Margaret Millar before, and this appears to be her most highly regarded book, but if anyone would like to suggest others of hers that are worth reading, please do!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Light Boxes

This odd little book by Shane Jones is set in a small town where it is always February and flight is forbidden. It wasn’t always this way. The town once had a lively tradition of ballooning, and many of the residents remember that, most especially the bird-masked former balloonists known as the Solution. The members of the solution are plotting a war to confront February and bring it to an end. (February is both a never-ending month and the being who has caused it.)

The book focuses on a family — Thaddeus, Selah, and their daughter Bianca. Thaddeus teaches Bianca the ways of the past with surreptitious kite-flying outings, and he’s curious about the Solution, who are encouraging him to join the war effort for the sake of his daughter. The stakes go up when Bianca disappears, one of many children who has gone missing, presumably kidnapped by February.

The story gets weirder and weirder, with reversals and mistaken identities and shifting plots and changing loyalties. Most of the story is communicated in fragments, just images of what is happening, but very few explanations. This approach puts readers right into the situation, having to work out what’s going on moment to moment, without ever having complete information. Is, for example, it a good idea to listen to the children living underground? Are the children ghosts? Is the man on the edge of town really February, or just a builder as he claims? What is the girl who smells of honey really up to? I don’t know that it ever comes together, but the questions kept me reading.

One thing that struck me about the story, and the foggy mode of storytelling, is that it gives readers a sense of how it feels to be in the midst of something dire (a war, a disaster, a horrifying presidency) without knowing what’s going to happen next or the best way to get out of it. People’s commitment to the cause shift as circumstances change, and it’s not always clear who to trust. The book reads like a fairy tale, and, like a fairy tale, it gets at some universal fears about living in the world.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

An American Marriage

Celestial and Roy are living the American dream. Roy is finding success as an Atlanta executive. And Celestial is making plans for turning her art, making lifelike dolls, usually modeled after Roy, into a lucrative business. There may be some conflicts around the edges, as the newlyweds get to know each other’s secrets, but that’s marriage. It’s nothing they can’t get through.

But as the couple are on their way home after visiting Roy’s family, Roy is arrested for rape, even though he was with Celestial the entire time. After his conviction, he becomes one of many black men in jail, and Celestial has to figure out how to live a life on her own while honoring the commitment she made to Roy.

This novel by Tayari Jones has gotten a lot of praise, and I’m happy to say that it is well deserved. Celestial and Roy are complex characters, caught up in an impossible situation. And there are layers to the complexity involving class, family background, and personality. Added to the mix is Celestial’s best friend Andre, who introduced the couple and is now continuing to act as best friend, filling in for Roy at important family events. The novel takes each of their perspectives in turn, and each character acts in ways that are sometimes frustrating but always understandable. They are, after all, in an impossible situation.

This book won me over early on, in a lengthy sequence of letters between Celestial, Roy, and others, while Roy is in prison. I love an epistolary novel, and these are very well done. You can see exactly how Celestial and Roy are trying to keep things together while talking past each other. All the tensions that would come with any marriage are ramped up to 11. With Roy in prison, the stakes are so much higher, and any misstep can feel like an even bigger betrayal than under more ordinary circumstances. Loyalty and faithfulness feels both so much harder and so much more important under these circumstances.

As the story goes on, all of the characters are forced to question the nature and meaning of their relationships. At times, it makes for very uncomfortable reading, and my emotions were all over the place. At some point, each of the main character did something to infuriate me, even as I could see where each one was coming from with their actions.

I should also mention the strong supporting cast, especially Roy’s mother and step-father, especially especially Roy’s stepfather (also named Roy). He is fiercely devoted to Roy, and to his wife, Roy’s mother, Olive, and he presents a strong and unwavering moral center to the novel. An argument could be made that it is Roy and Olive’s marriage that is the American Marriage of the title because it is, in many respects, the model marriage, built on steadfast loyalty and trust. But Celestial and Roy’s marriage may be closer to the norm, built on love, yes, but also misunderstandings and difficult questions. The most difficult of which is, How much love is needed to get past all the rest?

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments